Back on Track
The words were only heard by the dozen officials carrying walkie-talkies at the Liz Murphey Classic, but would soon echo through the collegiate golf landscape.
Shauna Estes, a freshman phenom, called head coach Beans Kelly and offered a red (and black) alert: "Are you ready to kick some butt?" Since finishing fourth at the 1993 NCAA Championships played on the very same University of Georgia Golf Course, Kelly's crew had been on the receiving end of some tough times. Over that span, UGA's only two triumphs were at the 1994 SEC Championships and 1995 Rainbow Wahine Invitational.
With Estes entering the winner's circle, Erin O'Neil cracking the top 10, Julia Boros breaking into the top 20 and Stefi Markovich and Shannon Ogg providing solid counters, the Lady Dogs did the unthinkable by winning in successive weeks at the Murphey and SECs. As a result, they surged as high as 13th in the rankings.
"It's been a real long time," Kelly said after her squad secured third or better in half its 10 tournaments. "We were in contention a couple of times in the fall, but it took the team believing as much as Shauna does. Golf is all about confidence and momentum. With Shauna backing it up, it's contagious just like bad attitudes and poor play."
The Lady Bulldogs' brilliance continued at the conference championship in Columbia, S.C., where the team led wire-to-wire for its record-tying seventh SEC crown. Holding off the likes of No. 4 Tennessee, No. 16 Florida, Auburn and LSU, Georgia gained a measure of redemption for its worst-ever showing (sixth) the previous year.
In the process, UGA essentially earned the triumph after O'Neil regrouped from a devastating opening round of 82, the first time in two years her total didn't count towards the team tally. The senior carded a round for the ages - a 5-under 66 - in which she shot 30 on the inward nine. Not only was it her best total by five strokes, but also the second-lowest score in school history behind Vicki Goetze's 7-under 65 the final day of the 1992 NCAAs. The Floridian finished with a 74 to help the squad maintain its six-stroke margin and took third individually.
On the strength of six straight top-20 finishes, O'Neil (77.66 season average/77.27 career average) was named All-SEC for the fourth time to become the first Lady Bulldog to ever achieve that distinction. She is perhaps most proud of joining Cindy Pleger (1980-83) and Tina Paternostro (1989-92) as the third UGA golfer to play in every possible event in her four years of collegiate competition.
While Estes pushed O'Neil through her fall funk, the Orangeburg, S.C., resident received a torrent of trophies highlighted by being the only freshman on the All-America first team. Concluding her campaign with eight straight top-10 finishes, including three victories, Estes became the second player in conference history to be named SEC Player of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year in the same season. The other? Georgia great Goetze in 1992.
"It's obvious Shauna made an impact," Kelly said of her most recent prized pupil, "but she had the other players believing as well and raised their games and confidence levels. You felt it brewing as soon as we got in the van."
Still, Estes already amassed a few accomplishments that alluded Goetze like a tournament record at the Murphey and an SEC title. The former feat merits mention since Estes established the low tourney tally (216) in the 25th playing of the event that boasted a who's who of winners.
However, her seventh-place performance at the NCAA East Regional wasn't enough to earn the team a spot in the NCAAs as well. In a year an eighth invitation to nationals was taken away from a squad at the East Regional, the Lady Bulldogs became that unfortunate team when they finished in the agonizing eighth position - marking the third time in four frustrating years that UGA endured an early end to its season.
"That's golf," Kelly stated after her team teetered on the bubble throughout the tourney. "There are no guarantees. Sometimes you can't control the destiny of your squad."
The disappointment was short-lived, though, since Estes turned more than a few heads by finishing fourth at NCAAs with a 1-over 289 total. As a result, she recorded the league's lowest stroke average (74.30), which was second in school history to Goetze's 73.32 in 1993. Fortunately, Georgia wasn't a two-person team since Boros joined O'Neil on the All-SEC honorable mention squad and earned Academic All-America accolades for the second straight season. The junior not only improved her scoring for the third consecutive year (78.07), but she also surpassed the number of top-20 finishes (5) compiled in her first two years combined (4).
Meanwhile, Markovich maintained her scholastic success with a third Academic All-America award but saw her scores suffer (79.72 season average/79.15 career average). Still, she enjoyed another fast start with a best-ever performance at the Auburn Tiger Invitational, where she shared sixth.
Although the senior struggled putting together three rounds, Markovich provided enough punch along with Ogg to fuel the late-season successes. The latter landed in the lineup all spring and contributed a counter just about half the time a vast improvement over the previous year when the fifth player counted just five of 30 rounds. The diminutive Lady Dog did her part by finishing the Murphey with rounds of 74 and 78 and starting SECs with a 78.
Ogg earned the final position on the travel team by virtue of her 29th-place performance at the Murphey, where senior Sabra Gray also recorded a season-best effort of 41st. A fall fixture in the lineup, sophomore Courtney Octave shared a similar top finish with Gray by sharing 41st at the Bradley.